Dieting and Mental Health

Dieting and Mental Health

I was scrolling through the internet and someone in an internet group asked if there was a connection between mental health and dieting. A lot of people gave their opinion, but I was very surprised that some people said “no”.

Let’s start there.

There is 100% connection between mental health and dieting.

We do need to get into the specifics because it’s important that you know what you are getting into when you jump into any type of dieting system. Let me also say that if you are experiencing extreme thoughts go see a doctor and it might not be the right time to be on a diet.

In the 1940’s Ancel Key’s published the Minnesota Starvation Study. If you have ever done any type of dieting you should read the results of that study so that you are more informed.

First let’s talk about how the study was set up, healthy men were fed just under 4000 calories as their baseline and at their lowest they were eating 1500 calories.  Let that sink in. Normal intake was 4,000 calories and starvation calories were 1,500 calories.

I think that’s important to know as we continue this conversation because it is COMMON for men to diet with 1500 calories now and women tend to get much more aggressive than that.

With that groundwork laid out, let’s explore what happened.

Firstly most of the men exhibited depression like symptoms. This is something well documented in scientific literature; dieting increases the risk of depression. Dieting is essentially stress; it is that stress that you are asking your body to adapt to so that you can use fat us fuel (in theory). Exercise is also stress, so when you under eat and exercise sometimes it’s like pouring gasoline on a spark. The thing to note about stress is that the point of a stress is to put enough on the system to cause adaptation, but not overwhelm the ability of the body to adapt to that stress.

Depression wasn’t the end of the road. In addition to the depression, the men started obsessively thinking about food. In an interview I read one of the participants, they participant stated that even though it had been years since the study, his relationship with food was changed forever. So much so that many of them who were never food obsessed before that started taking advertisements for food and using them as posters in their room or clipping out coupons.

If you have ever been on a diet with a cheat day and made lists of foods to eat later this might sound familiar.

To be fair I think it’s important to mention the flip side as well; depression can be a contributor to obesity as well, but you have to wonder if it’s a chicken or egg kind of thing. With the amount of extreme diets that exists right now you essentially blow through your metabolism and you are more susceptible to fat storage. Think about it, if your stomach is growling what are you going to reach for, kale? No, you are going to reach for the most calorie dense foods.

I was once on a panel and someone asked the speaker (a formerly obese woman) how she got that way and she said “I dieted my way there”. If you don’t know what she is saying it’s basically this: when she dieted, she did the most extreme thing possible to get the result she wanted the fastest. When she inevitably failed (multiple times) it set up a mental domino effect. This was very destructive for her self esteem. To this day she has to be careful as this extreme approach landed her with an eating disorder (that’s the second part of mental health that extreme dieting contributes towards).

Another important aspect of this discussion (which is really it’s own article), is the connection between under eating and sleeping less is very real. Sleeping less also makes you very susceptible to mental health issues.

The point of this isn’t to say that people should never diet. But, let’s be real here, many people joke about being “hangry” but don’t realize their is a very real connection between mental health and under eating. As an example, the person asking the group at the start of the article was mentioning suicidal thoughts. More than one person had to say to them “it’s not only time to stop dieting it’s important you go see a doctor”. With the amount of extreme dieting that is going on throughout the internet with NO supervision, I think it is important more people hear this message.

Partially because even in that thread many VERY SMART people did not think there was a connection between dieting and mental health. If you exist as a professional, or even a participant, in the health and fitness space, there is too much at stake to not know the connection with the amount of information available to us.

I do get why people would be defensive about under eating. We all use it at times to manage our weight and there are times where under eating makes sense. This isn’t meant to scare you, it’s meant to bring awareness that the extreme diet that you are considering to lose a few pounds might have a bigger consequence than you might think so you have to balance those risks (and possibly look for something more sustainable).